Phil Sheridan: U.S. women keep the dream going for future generations

Megan Rapinoe, right, celebrates with teammate Alex Morgan after scoring against Canada during their semIfinal women's soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England.
Megan Rapinoe, right, celebrates with teammate Alex Morgan after scoring against Canada during their semIfinal women's soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England. (JON SUPER / Associated Press)
Posted: August 09, 2012

LONDON - The rivalry with those varmints north of the border was finally on. The U.S. against Canada: Yuengling vs. Molson, states vs. provinces, the Red, White, and Blue vs. the Great White North.

That was the feeling Monday night, as the Americans and Canadians waged a soccer war for the ages. It was physical, it was intense, it was emotional. It took a goal by Alex Morgan in injury time of overtime for the U.S. women to advance to the gold-medal game.

Just 14 hours later, it was time for Round 2: the United States and Canada in the quarterfinals of the Olympic women's basketball tournament. The passion, the pride, the . . .

Oh, never mind. The United States pummeled Canada, 91-48, in a game that was as riveting as lukewarm poutine.

"It was amazing," Team USA forward Candace Parker said.

She was talking about the soccer game, which she had watched the night before with her husband.

"My husband is the biggest fan of Alex Morgan," Parker said, "so he went absolutely crazy when she scored the header."

It's an intriguing contrast, when you get down to it. Here's one of the stars of the U.S. women's basketball program. As a fan, she was transported by the tension, the pressure, the drama of the previous night's soccer game.

As an athlete, though, she was more than happy with her team's rampage through this tournament. The U.S. team has won all six of its games by an average score of 92-63, a 29-point chasm. If that's boring for spectators, it's nectar for a competitor.

"Honestly," Parker said, "when you think of dominance, I think of UCLA [basketball under John Wooden], and in no way was that team boring. In 20 years, I don't think anyone will look back and say we're boring."

As an 8-year-old, Parker was enthralled watching the U.S. women's team in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That group - Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Edwards among them - won eight games by an average score of 102-70.

"I chose basketball because of the '96 team," Parker said. "They were amazing. They were killing people then, and that inspired me. I know that somewhere out there, a future Olympian is watching our team play, and in no way, shape or form do they think that we're boring. They want to be a part of it."

Tamika Catchings' father, Harvey, was an NBA player for 11 seasons. He spent about half his career with the 76ers. But the 1996 team inspired her, as well.

"The 1996 Olympic team was the first time I truly watched women's basketball," she said. "I thought, 'That's where I want to be, but how do I get there?' "

The team has two choices: Play as well as it can, which means dominating all the way to gold, or go easy, which is a slippery slope that leads to the kind of mess badminton found itself in.

"All you can change is yourself," Parker said. "You can't help if you play great teams or you don't. Our job is to score more points than the other team."

There is a strong ethical argument for playing your best and challenging the rest of the world to catch up. There's also a practical reason. The U.S. women have won gold medals in four consecutive Olympics. They are about to make it five.

"We're just trying not to be the people that end that streak," Parker said. "We don't want to lose and have people not take us for granted."

Before the Games began, much was made of the increased prominence of women in sports.

It is the 40th anniversary of Title IX in the United States - the law that provided equal opportunity for female athletes. And it is the first time there are more women than men on Team USA (although, if the American men's soccer team had qualified, that would not have been the case; just saying).

There can be no doubt that Title IX gave U.S. women, especially in team sports, a huge head start on the world. The world is getting better at its own pace, but someone has to lead. Catchings said international competition in basketball - in Turkey, in Australia, in China - is getting stronger.

It's just a matter of time before that translates into more balanced Olympic tournaments. It's already happening in soccer.

"The Olympics is the highest level for all of our sports," Catchings said. "When you get here, you want to put your best foot forward."

Mostly, though, these athletes see themselves on the same continuum as the women who inspired them.

"We know we have a standard of gold from past Olympians and we have to be role models for the future," Parker said. "We all grew up watching the USA succeed. Once we get our opportunity, we try to step in and continue that."

And if that doesn't mean competitive games? Blame Canada.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster, and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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